Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

As federal and military authorities swarm D.C. streets, Mayor Muriel Bowser keeps calling their actions things like “inappropriate,” “unnecessary,” and “appalling.” That sounds like somebody irritated over a dropped napkin at a dinner party. 

The morning after federal authorities swept H and 16th streets NW to allow President Trump’s Bible-thumping photo op outside St. John’s Church, the mayor measuredly told reporters Tuesday, “I don’t think the military should be used on the streets of American cities, and I certainly don’t think it should be done for a show.”

On social media there have been numerous calls for Bowser to be more outraged and to take a tougher stand against Trump’s incursion into the District’s Home Rule. 

But there is an uncomfortable racist backstory to the limits of the District’s local police power, and there are real fears today among city leaders that a provoked President Trump could take over the city’s police department and direct it to do whatever he wants.

The unusual presidential authority lies within the rarely discussed section 740 of the D.C. Home Rule Act that Congress passed in 1973, setting up the local government that took office after the 1974 elections. 

It reads: “…whenever the President of the United States determines that special conditions of an emergency nature exist which require the use of the Metropolitan Police force for Federal purposes, he may direct the Mayor to provide him, and the Mayor shall provide, such services of the Metropolitan Police force as the President may deem necessary and appropriate.” (Emphasis added.)

In recent days, that authority has been the subject of intense conversations among and between the mayor, federal officials, and the White House. Mayor Bowser and her staff privately have pushed back in those conversations, saying such an extraordinary takeover would inflame the streets even more and would be an affront to the local government whose police force has extensive experience with crowd control.

Confronted about those private conversations at her Tuesday morning press conference, Mayor Bowser indirectly acknowledged them. “Tom, you know that I have a lot of conversations, some of them I can discuss fully and some I will give you the gist of,” she said in response to this reporter’s question. “You heard the President—he wanted a show of force in D.C. and we know that they examined a lot of ways to do that.” 

The policing provision is nearly at the end of the law that spells out how local officials will govern the District. Powerful, conservative members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, had worried since 1967 about giving District residents—largely black citizens and liberal whites—too much power over the police.  

As Harry Jaffe and I wrote in our 1994 book, Dream City, the city’s first appointed mayor, Walter Washington, at first refused the appointed job in 1967 when Congress, PresidentJohnson’s White House, and city business leaders, including Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham, sought to keep police power in federal hands. 

Johnson eventually relented and Washington became mayor. That proved to be important for the District. In the 1968 riots that followed the assassination ofMartin Luther King Jr., Mayor Washington was on the streets and in charge of the city, with backup from the National Guard that President Johnson sent in to help him. To this day, the mayor of Washington, D.C. still cannot alone call up the local National Guard. The mayor must ask the president for that authority, which the Department of Defense and the Secretary of the Army must review before it is granted.

By 1973, when an appointed mayor and Council still led the District, skepticism remained high and racist fears clouded people’s beliefs about the District’s ability to govern itself. There were worries how the liberal city might use the powers. 

But when Michigan Congressman Charlie Diggs, an African American representing Detroit, became chairman of the House District Committee that oversaw the nation’s capital, he held hearings on local control that led to Home Rule. 

Still, all of the measures then being considered kept ultimate authority in the hands of Congress. Local D.C. activist Julius Hobson Sr. described it accurately at one hearing. “I suspect that there are some members of this committee and of this Congress who don’t want us to have [governing authority] because this is a black city,” he told the committee members.

Hobson was especially critical of compromises Diggs felt were necessary. Powerful members of Congress from Maryland and Virginia made certain that the Home Rule Act included a provision banning the District from ever imposing a commuter tax. Any legislation, no matter how small, would be subject to a veto or revision by the House and Senate. Unlike the rest of the nation, the District would have no role in prosecuting major crimes; that uniquely was reserved for the U.S. Attorney. Again, people feared blacks being in control of the judiciary branch.

In the intervening years, Congress has inserted itself in major policies of the District, banning any abortions paid for with federal funds, outlawing the use of clean needles to combat disease and drug abuse, and restricting lobbying for statehood, among many others. 

Now, President Trump has taken a major leap forward, threatening the public safety independence of the city itself. 

District officials earnestly say they think the President’s power is not as strong as the words of the Home Rule Act. Mayor Bowser’s chief of staff and Acting Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, John Falccichio, says the city would challenge in court any usurpation of D.C. authority, but he acknowledges lawyers disagree on that potential outcome.  

In the short term, President Trump, who has expressed his disgust for the District, holds the upper hand, unless the courts down the road tell him otherwise.